Let us pause from one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in modern American history to contemplate an aspect of the candidates around which all Americans can unite in high and bipartisan praise: Their family lives.
Though they differ in many ways, President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney both are loyal husbands, fiercely devoted fathers and all around role models as family men. What’s more, both candidates’ devotion to their families is rooted in their respective faith experiences.
Romney’s devotion to his wife, Ann, is the stuff of legend. Their family and friends insist the couple has never had a serious argument. Whether or not that’s true, the relationship seems to be founded on mutual respect and admiration.
The Romney’s five sons are universally regarded as well-grounded, well-mannered, smart and successful family men. Romney instilled in his boys a deep respect for their mother.
Romney’s oldest son, Taggart, has referred to his father as “the enforcer…but only when we didn’t treat my mom with respect. I remember that was the number one rule growing up—treat your mother with respect, kindness and love. If we back-talked her in any way, it was a serious offense.”
Charitable work and physical labor were staples in the Romney household. Once when a poor family needed help at Christmas, Romney took his sons to buy gifts and firewood, delivering them to the family on Christmas Day. “That was one of my most memorable Christmases, but he was constantly doing things like that and never telling anyone about them, but he wanted us to see him,” Taggart told Hugh Hewitt, author of “A Mormon in the White House?” “He would let the kids see it because he wanted it to rub off on us.”
Much has been made of Romney’s wealth. But growing up, the Romney boys didn’t realize how wealthy they were. That was because, as Michael Kranish and Scott Helman write in “The Real Romney,” “eschewed many of the trappings of wealth,” including a cook, fulltime made and luxury cars. Romney, they write, “was frugal to the core, wearing winter gloves patched with duct tape and cracking down on anyone in the house who left the water running or the lights on.”
Romney deflects praise about his parenting, insisting that his wife did “most of the heavy lifting.” But, Romney told Hewitt, “When I came home and the door shut behind me, I didn’t work. I was with Ann and the kids because that’s what life is all about.”
Romney, a man who has reached the heights of success in business and government, has said, “The most enjoyment that my life knows is having all of my family together.”
President Obama is similarly devoted to his family. The president has described his relationship with Michelle as having “complete trust and honesty.”
The Obama’s two young daughters, Malia and Sasha, are their first priority. “Our kids thrive on routine and stability and consistency,” the first lady said during the 2008 campaign. “We’re always checking. How are the girls, how are our kids doing? Every day we take a measure. We’re measuring the pulse of our children, if your kid’s not right, you can’t function.”
The Obamas are known to be very guarded about their daughters’ media exposure. As Jodi Kantor explained in “The Obamas” about the family after they moved to the White House, “When their parents tallied what they most wanted to keep their own, to protect from the intrusions and poisons of public life, the girls were at the very top of the list. Little was more vital to them than letting Malia and Sasha grow up as naturally and sanely as possible.”
To that end, the White House personnel are not allowed to make the kids’ beds or perform other chores for them. Cellphone, computer and TV use is heavily restricted. Healthy eating, athletics, and G-rated programming are all priorities.
Time is the scarcest resource for any president. But Obama always has time for his family. The president spends most dinners with his family—the rule is that he misses no more than two dinners a week. “Obama enforced the rule avidly,” Kantor wrote.
Obama has skipped or cut short evenings with foreign dignitaries to spend time with his family. “Sometimes Michelle and I not doing the circuit and going out to dinners with folks is perceived as us being cool,” Obama has said. “It actually really has more to do with us being parents.”
The president often works his daily schedule around his daughters’ school events and extra-curricular activities. Obama once interrupted a negotiating session for health insurance reform to attend a flute recital at his daughters’ school, one of many such stories from the campaign trail and the White House. Obama even coached Sasha’s basketball team to a league championship, which, according to Glenn Thrush in his new e-book, “Obama’s Last Stand,” “had the commander in chief buzzing around the West Wing for days.”
Like Romney, Obama is assisted by a dedicated wife. Michelle Obama described herself as the “Mom-in-Chief” at the Democratic National Convention, calling it “my most important title.” The Obamas are also helped by Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, the first mother-in-law to live in the White House since the Truman administration.
I don’t mean to suggest that either candidate has a perfect family life. Ann Romney said during her Republican National Convention speech that she and Mitt Romney have not a “story book marriage” but rather “a real one.”
The Obamas’ marriage went through a rough patch during Obama’s failed congressional run in 2000. And they have been candid about the strains that political life has placed on their family.
Romney and Obama are similarly devoted to their families, but their devotion is rooted in very different upbringings. Romney was raised in a traditional family and idolized his father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney.
Obama met his father only once http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2008/08/22/on-his-own.html, and was raised by his mother and her parents. He consciously set out not to repeat his father’s life. “For the most part what I understood from him was an absence, and I vowed that when I became a father one of the most important things that I could be is a presence in my children’s lives,” Obama has written.
This is a sentiment Obama has repeated often, including at the recent Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner in New York, when he said that “family man and loving father are two titles that matter more than any political ones.”
Obama and Romney are both guided by their faith. Obama has said that his Christian faith “plays every role” in his life. He has also said that he respects that Romney takes his faith and his role as a father seriously.
The Romneys have said that they base their lives on the well-known Mormon saying, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.”
Some suggest that the personal lives of presidents shouldn’t matter. After all, they argue, some of our greatest presidents—Washington, FDR, Kennedy, for instance—didn’t have children, cheated on their wives or had distant relationships with their kids.
But that’s a cynical and outdated view. At a time when most new mothers under 30 are unmarried, and as social science continues to pinpoint family breakdown as a major driver of poverty and other social ills, presidents can’t afford to focus only on politics. The presidency has never been more visible to the public, and those who aspire to it should also be role models for family life.
Obama and Romney are offering voters a choice between two competing visions for America. Fortunately, they are also offering voters complementary visions for what it means to be successful husbands and fathers.
Daniel Allott is senior writer at American Values, a Washington, D.C. area public policy organization.